August 27, 2011
What makes a good student note?
Posted by Erik Gerding

We have returned to the season when students pick topics for law review notes. What advice should professors give them? We could borrow from patent law for one set of guidelines. A theme that is novel, useful, and non-obvious makes for a good note. But there are nuances and exceptions to this troika. For example, a novel approach to looking at a well-trodden area works well. And there are lots of examples of scholarship I find fascinating the immediate utility of which is not apparent.

Here are a few other pointers.

1. Good notes tend to go deep rather than broad. Pick a topic that can allow you to delve into nuance and exercise analytic skills in a finely grained way.

2. Pick a topic that gets you excited. You will probably come to hate your piece at some point, but hopefully that is a late and passing stage. If you aren’t interested in it when you start out, it will be a hard slog.

3. Writing about current events can present timing problems. Writing about a particular pending case, statute, or regulation can become a problem if the case is settled or decided or the statute or regulation is finalized or scuttled before the article is finished. But…

4. You can always change the question you are answering or the way you frame the topic. This is important to remember even after you chose a topic and you hit roadblocks in your research later. Be nimble.

5. Go exploring. Think of this as an opportunity to teach yourself about an area of law in depth. The note might make a great writing sample and it might make a good conversation starter with employers. At the same time, there does not have to be a connection between this piece of writing and your career path. Give yourself the freedom to be curious.

What advice do other professors give?

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